Jason Collins, Michael Sam and the Media's Role in the Hype Around Gay Players

Dan Levy@danlevythinksNational Lead WriterFebruary 25, 2014

Missouri defensive end Michael Sam speaks during a news conference at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

What if Jadeveon Clowney announced two weeks before the NFL Scouting Combine that he was gay? What if LeBron James came out in a national magazine spread during last season’s playoffs?

The buzz around either announcement would have been enough to make P.T. Barnum blush.

Now, make no mistake about the fact that Michael Sam and Jason Collins sharing headlines during the same week—the former for publicly announcing he is gay in advance of the NFL combine, the latter for signing an NBA contract nine months after his own announcement—is enormous news in the world of American sports.

Two openly gay athletes in male team sports making history at the same time is massive, in our extremely insular world of sports and our society around us.

It just feels like this moment could have been bigger. It feels like there’s a palpable sense of disappointment in the media that the news isn’t bigger—that the players, frankly put, aren’t better.

February 23, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Brooklyn Nets center Jason Collins (46) attempts a shot against the Los Angeles Lakers during the second half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

When Collins announced he was gay, everyone wondered whether or not it would impact his ability to get a job. While we will never know why it took the big man nearly an entire year to find work, the media circus that was certain to follow his signing very well may have precluded teams from taking a serious look at signing him in the offseason.

Or, perhaps more likely, it was merely the fact that Collins was an aging veteran who commanded more money than any team was willing to pay for a bench player with a limited skill set.

There have been former players who have come out after their careers, and Collins was nearly that and nothing more. The Nets changed the narrative, but only because they needed a basketball player, and Collins fit their needs.

And still, all the talk this week has been about whether his signing will be a distraction, and if the Nets are the team best equipped to handle this circus around him. From The New York Times:

After the game, (head coach Jason Kidd) was asked if there was any additional distraction Sunday night, given the hoopla around Collins: "That’s you guys," Kidd said to the assembled reporters. "We’re basketball players, and we’re here to do one thing — and that’s to find a way to win. You guys are the distraction. You guys are. It doesn’t bother us."

We—the media—are the distraction. The entire industry, in a way, is a distraction. For those of us who have the good fortune of writing and talking about sports, everything about what we do is ancillary to the competitions we cover. When “storylines” like a gay player come up—or in this case, come out—it’s nothing but a distraction to those who play the game, including in just about every way the subjects of our stories.

Collins and Sam both decided to announce they are gay to the public, so they knew to expect whatever notoriety and media scrutiny would come with that decision. They have to own their moments, not just for themselves, but for all the former players who weren’t able to do this before them, and those who will have to be strong enough down the line to follow in their path.

This is an incredible time for gay athletes. Yet in more ways than not, this isn’t about being gay at all.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Jason Collins signing with the Nets is not about him being gay. It’s about him being tall.

I heard two national reporters discussing the reaction to Collins’ debut on the radio on Monday, and one said that this story will continue on as Collins goes from city to city, as each batch of local beat writers and columnists gets a crack at the Nets locker room to ask one more time if Collins being on the team is a distraction.

“They have to sell newspapers,” one said. I’m honestly not sure if that was a joke or an actual justification.

That’s the problem with the media today…we just can’t let things go until we get our chance to ask the question. (And yes, I know I’m a constant contributor to the noise.) If Collins wasn’t a distraction in Los Angeles, he probably won’t be one in Portland or Denver or Milwaukee or even back home in Brooklyn.

He is a guy who plays basketball and happens to be gay. Jason Kidd is right to suggest that the only distractions are reporters asking if the Collins story is a distraction.

The same goes for Sam.

Michael Conroy/Associated Press

Sam played an entire season in college and won SEC Defensive Player of the Year en route to helping his team get within a game of playing for the national championship, and him being openly gay to his teammates and coaches did not seem like a distraction at all.

Yet when Sam made the announcement publicly, it’s one of the only questions anyone could think to ask.

Will it be a distraction in the NFL? Is the NFL ready for a “fill-in-the-blank gay player?”

Sports Illustrated put together a hastily published compilation of cowardly anonymous NFL officials saying the league is not ready for a gay player, adding a hackneyed sense of validity to the query.

That article did more damage to this entire…what’s the word…moment than anything else that has been said about Sam. It added unnecessary validity to the idea that others should have a choice of being “ready” for this. Why does anyone other than the athlete get to decide when we are ready for something like this?

It’s 2014, not 1940.

From Mike Freeman’s combine report on Sam:

"I wish you guys would see me as Michael Sam the football player," he said, "not as Michael Sam the gay football player."

He didn't say those words in a condescending or angry manner. It was more like a plea. As unrealistic as that is, hearing him say it tugged at the heart. He really just wants to play football. He doesn't want to be a symbol (but he is). He doesn't want to be anything but a player in the NFL (and he will be).

Will he? If you watched the coverage of Sam on the NFL Network, they spent more time coming up with reasons he won’t succeed at the NFL level than any reason to suggest he will.

Mike Mayock said he would be a fourth- or fifth-round pick at best after seeing him struggle through the drills. Other analysts, including Warren Sapp, who was on the network’s coverage of the defensive linemen and linebackers, questioned his ability to play any natural position in the NFL.

The network spent nearly as much time on Sam during his combine workouts as Clowney, who could be the first player selected in the NFL draft. And from everything I saw, none of the evaluation around his draftability had anything to do with his sexual orientation.

If Sam's just a late-round pick, why not treat him like one?

It wasn’t just the NFL Network. Many people in the media wrote about Sam’s performance in the combine drills as if he let all the air out of this extraordinary balloon. From Pro Football Talk:

Sam, who will be the NFL’s first openly gay player if he makes it to the league, turned in a disappointing 40-yard dash on Monday after turning in a disappointing bench press on Sunday. ...

... By coming out before the Combine, Sam showed that he’s a brave, inspirational young man. What Sam hasn’t shown at the Combine is that he’s a good enough athlete to succeed in the NFL.

It’s as if the media are disappointed that Sam isn’t a better player. Seriously.

The thing about Sam’s request for the media to treat him like a football player and not some kind of bastion for social change is that it says far more about us than it does him.

Feb 22, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Missouri Tigers defensive end Michael Sam conduct a press conference in a crowded room of media during the 2014 NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

A player had to ask the media to treat him like everyone else and still took any and every question about what kind of distraction he might be for the team that drafts him.

Do we not get it? Are we collectively that dense? Or are we just trying to sell the 2014 equivalent of newspapers?

Some people have gone so far as to compare these two men to Jackie Robinson. That’s why it matters if Sam or Collins is good enough to be the (rainbow) flag bearer for their respective team sports. History is at stake.

Harry Harris/Associated Press

Robinson breaking the color barrier is not the best thing to happen to Major League Baseball because he was black. It’s because he was great.

If Robinson didn’t go on to have a Hall of Fame career—if he wasn’t good enough or strong enough or patient enough to hack it with all the pressure he faced—American history would be very different today. The path of Collins and Sam and others like them would be very different too.

That’s where the comparisons should end, though. There were other trailblazing black players in baseball around the same time Branch Rickey and the Brooklyn Dodgers picked Robinson to break the color barrier.

History doesn’t really remember those who don’t make it.

John Wright was the second African-American player to sign a contract with a big league club. Unlike Robinson, Wright never panned out, finishing his career back in the Negro Leagues after just one year in the Dodgers organization. From Baseball America:

Wright flamed out in Organized Ball, however, and by the beginning of the 1947 season, as Robinson was stepping onto the diamond at Ebbets Field, Wright was back in the Negro Leagues, hurling for the Homestead Grays, with any hopes of becoming a big leaguer dashed. And while Robinson has become a household name, Wright has been largely lost to history, a footnote in Branch Rickey’s crusade to integrate the game.

By all accounts, Wright certainly had the talent to be a star in the majors, but it was Robinson, not Wright, who officially broke in first. Robinson became a legend. Wright is barely a footnote in the history of the game.

Is Collins more like Wright or Robinson? Who will Sam be more like?

Glenn Burke was more like Wright than Robinson too, at least in terms of historical context.

Who is Glenn Burke? He was Jason Collins before Jason Collins, Michael Sam before Michael Sam—Robbie Rogers before Robbie Rogers.

Burke was the first major leaguer to publicly acknowledge he was gay, and he was no Jackie Robinson. Not by a long shot.

LM/Associated Press

Burke played 225 games in the majors, hitting a middling .237 with the Dodgers and the A’s, before leaving the game in 1980.

Burke died in 1995, at age 42, after complications from AIDS. From his obituary in The New York Times:

Burke played in the majors for four and a half seasons, batting .237 and stealing 35 bases. But he left the game at the age of 27 in 1980 because, he said, too many people in baseball condemned his sexuality. "Prejudice drove me out of baseball sooner than I should have," Burke said in an interview with The New York Times last year. "But I wasn't changing."

Back in May, when Collins made front-page news around the country for being the first openly gay men’s athlete in American team sports, there was little mention of Burke. There really never has been.

Allen Barra wrote a piece for The Atlantic on May 2 of last year, reminding people that Burke did, in fact, exist. Maybe society (read: the media) is ready for a gay player now, so it’s easier for us to look at the athletes coming out today as trailblazers when, in reality, they are just walking down a path others have already cleared:

He tried to change sports culture three decades ago—but back then, unlike now, sports culture wasn't ready for a change.

Burke made no secret of his sexual orientation to the Dodgers front office, his teammates, or friends in either league. He also talked freely with sportswriters, though all of them ended up shaking their heads and telling him they couldn't write that in their papers.

Barra’s story went on to say the Dodgers tried to pay Burke to agree to a sham marriage, but he refused. Clearly things were different in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Certainly our society in 2014 is far more accepting of LGBT lives.

It just feels like, because of the past, we might be overcompensating now.

Collins just wants to play basketball. He’s always been gay, so the only difference between him being an NBA player last year, for example, and now is that we know he’s gay.

Sam has been a standout college athlete, and the only difference between him and the few hundred other players vying for employment in the NFL is that he allowed the rest of us a look inside his private life.

This doesn’t need to be bigger than it is.

Robinson was not allowed to play baseball in the major leagues until the powers that be—old white men—let him. Old straight men may be deciding the fate of players like Collins and Sam, but in a far less socially divisive way.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

There have been gay athletes for as long as there have been athletics. While life has never been easy for those with the courage to come out publicly—look at what Martina Navratilova had to go through during her career—the world in 2014 is far more understanding than it was in previous generations.

With that comes more talk about distractions than societal revolution.

There are certainly detractors, but it’s nothing close to what those torchbearers before them had to face. Collins can be just an NBA player—once we let him. Sam can be just an NFL player once we stop making him into something more than that.

It feels as though we, in the media, are looking at this time with a skewed focus. Most of us weren’t alive, or certainly working in the industry, when Robinson made history. For Collins or Sam, this week may not be their Jackie Robinson moment. But it sure feels like some of us want it to be ours.

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

We are documentarians of history. That’s what we do every day. We report news and events to debate and dissect and put into the proper context for everyone from our current readers to future generations. It’s a sea of ambient noise, of which nothing really matters. Or maybe it all does.

Collins playing for the Nets is an enormous moment in NBA history, and we get to be here to chronicle it. Sam making the NFL will be one of the biggest stories in quite some time. It’s our job to remember it.

That’s why this is such a big deal. That’s why we wish it was more of a distraction for some of the other players.

That’s why many of us wish it was LeBron or Clowney. We get to be a part of their moment, their history. We want it to be as big as we can make it.


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